Fun With Numbers: Non-GAAP Reporting

Non-GAAP reporting, financial reporting that doesn’t conform to generally accepted accounting principles, is finally being addressed by SEC Chair, Mary Jo White. At the recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, White questioned whether companies have “gone overboard” with Non-GAAP reporting to make their earnings stories “rosier.”

Non-GAAP reporting methods are highly problematic. Cross-comparisons between companies using these measures are impossible (how do you compare an apple to an orange?). They distort what we typically define as progress (e.g. making a profit) and offer alternative measures, many of which have been called “gimmicks.”

While some argue the investor class is savvy enough to distinguish between truth and fiction in financial reporting, it is the SEC’s job to protect them. Allowing companies to operate through obfuscation and “story-telling” does not do that. “Adjusted earnings” are not the same as the real kind.

Further, Wall Street analysts have proven useless in bringing to light any underlying weaknesses or false assumptions about earnings, real or adjusted. Take Valeant. The NY-listed drug firm bought other drug firms, cut costs and increased drug prices, using debt financing to pay for it. For years, analysts had nothing to say about the shady business model, dubious accounting methods, and evasive management. WolfStreet summarized analyst questions/comments from Valeant calls (back to April 2015). On these calls, not one single meaningful question asked or comment voiced. Ultimately, Valeant generated no profit, but rather a $75 billion loss for shareholders. Too bad all the analysts drank the company Kool-Aid.

Since analysts will never expose the truth about how well or poorly companies are truly doing, transparent and standardized financial reporting methods are the only way investors will know the real risks they are taking with their money.

In a society where wage stagnation is the norm, the stock market is one of the few places a smart investor can still make money. Non-GAAP reporting makes a mockery of that principle.

Creative accounting has no place in our markets. Mary Jo White should put an end to fun with numbers.